Putting the life back in science fiction

What I did on my vacation (California in the High Altithermal)
May 18, 2016, 11:10 pm
Filed under: Altithermal, California, climate change | Tags: , ,

Yes, I had a nice, long road trip through the west, up the Central Valley to Oregon, back around through various national parks, and back in through the Imperial Valley.  Now I’m back, just in time to bury myself in a bunch of environmental documents.

Still, I had fun.  As usual, I made the fun weird by reading an (in)appropriate book, in this case Ronnie Ellenblum’s The Collapse of the Eastern Mediterranean: Climate Change and the Decline of the East, 950-1072The premise here is that, when Europe was enjoying the Medieval Warm Period, eastern Europe and the Mediterranean were hit a couple of times by really bad droughts and associated famines due to regional cooling that extended well past the Black Sea.  Ellenblum blames the collapse of the Byzantine Empire and the Caliphate and the rise of the Turks (who came in off the steppes) on this change in weather, and suggests that the reason the Crusades “worked” was that eastern Europe was suffering at a time when western Europe was booming.   One can argue with this idea, but one can’t argue with a bigger point, which is that the reason this particular history isn’t better known is that the archives are spread across multiple languages, from Hebrew to Arabic to Greek to whatever, while the medieval history of western Europe is largely in Latin.  Thus, you have to be multilingual (as Ellenblum is) to compile a regional history of the Near East and notice that so many people are complaining about famines and civil unrest at exactly the same times.

Given how much California is like modern Israel–climatically at least–I’m finding the book interesting as sort of a guide to what happens during major droughts, and Jerusalem is a great example.  Up until the 10th Century, the city was watered by several Roman-built aqueducts that tapped springs in the nearby hills.  As the droughts deepened, the big aqueducts fell out of service, and the city depended more on local aqueducts and on storing rain in big cisterns, as at the Temple Mount.  As one might expect, the less dependable water was, the smaller the population of Jerusalem was.  Ellenblum makes a case that it’s not a linear relationship between water and population, because Jerusalem’s rain fluctuates enormously between years.  Rather, when the city was running solely on rainwater, and on perched springs fed by recent rainwater,  the dry years seemed to be a really dominant driver in determining how many people were willing to live in Jerusalem.

That’s something I’m really thinking about, after driving past so many farms watered by groundwater and cities fed by enormous aqueducts.  When we run out of usable groundwater and when the aqueducts fail, California’s population is going to fall by quite a bit.  No surprise there, of course, but the pleasant(ish) thought is that, well, Jerusalem weathered some really bad spells, and it’s still accreting history today.  Los Angeles could collapse from a population in the millions to a population in the thousands, but some part of it might remain,a dusty desert pueblo parked between Silver Lake and the LA River, for at least another thousand years.

That wasn’t the only history I saw.  We puttered along State Route 49 through the California Gold Country.  It was gorgeous with wildflowers (this was a few weeks ago), and we drove past some pretty empty reservoirs.  Then there were the little towns, with the closed tourist shops and the broken down gas stations.  As we got closer to Sacramento (past Ione, anyway), the ranches were going up for sale, and some had sprouted subdivisions and malls.  There were at least three generations of California history packed in there, with the ranches (some broken down, some fine), the old towns from the horse days, the old gas stations from the early car days, the more modern towns where people had concentrated (often with their little strip malls and chain stores), and then the (often gated) subdivisions where the ranchers had sold out.  Alan Schoenherr’s California progression of “the cow, then the plow, then the bulldozer” was happening all over, but kind of randomly, as some ranches held out longer than others.

Coming back to San Diego, we saw the same sort of development all around Coachella, where it really looked like an exercise in martian terraforming, with bland, walled suburbs and anonymous malls plopped on top of what had been creosote, after the farmers moved south.  It’s amazing what you can do with some Colorado River water and developers with a vision to make the same homes over and over and over again.  They’ll leave some neat ruins when the water runs out, at least until the sheet rock falls apart.  The Colorado Desert doesn’t seem to be that kind to old buildings.

Going back to the Mid East, one reason the area work(ed?, s?) so well for civilization is that the croplands depend on not one, but two different rain regimes.  The Middle East itself runs on a Mediterranean climate with winter rains and summer drought.  The Nile in Egypt, though, is fed from the Ethiopian Highlands, which run partially on the Indian Ocean Monsoon.  Either one can fail, but it’s historically rare for both the Nile and the Middle East to have simultaneous droughts.  Unfortunately, when the double drought happened, empires tottered, because they couldn’t export grain from Egypt to feed hungry people elsewhere, nor could they import grain to feed hungry farmers along the Nile.  Nowadays it looks like Egypt’s a net importer of wheat, and subject to global market forces instead of regional ones.  I’m not sure what it does for global stability, having everyone tied together into one system like that, but that’s where we are right now.

Southern California kinda-sorta does the same thing as Egypt and the middle East used to do, by drawing water from the Rockies via the Colorado, and from the northern Sierra Nevada via the California aqueduct.  Both these are long pipelines, though, and weather in Colorado and the Sierra are more linked than, say, the weather in Israel and Ethiopia.  Still, there’s some parallel, and it’s one reason why farming in the Imperial Valley used to be so prosperous.  Now the salt’s creeping in, so they’ve got their own problems (not least of which is the Salton Sea), but that’s another story.

In any case, if and when California collapses, it’s probably not the end of all the cities, just a radical downsizing.  That might be bad news for Oregon, since I don’t think they’re ready for 35 million climate refugees heading north, but it’s better than total devastation.

And, in the meantime, if you take a car trip, you can look for signs of history as you drive too.  It beats listening to books on tape, at least in my opinion.


The Day After

Yay, it’s the day after Earth Day.  They’ve started signing the Paris climate accord, John Kerry photo-opping by signing with his granddaughter on his lap.  Obama will ratify it by executive action, the Senate Republicans will pass something nauseating telling him to stop chasing myths (unless maybe that doesn’t happen?), he’ll veto their attempt to quash him, and…

Well, what happens next?  In the real world, I’m not so sure, but after I finish the swarm of stuff I’m working on (I won’t be blogging for the next few weeks), I’ll start figuring out how to revise Hot Earth Dreams. There’s still time to get your comments in, but the window is closing.

Now that it’s the day after Earth Day, what have I learned?

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What mass extinctions look like

Another post, in part to remind myself that I’ll need to update the chapter on reefs in Hot Earth Dreams.  The bad news of March, at least in my opinion (aside from all the rain that didn’t fall on California) was that the bleaching of the northern section of the Great Barrier reef (as mentioned by, among many others, National Geographic, DW, Slate, CNN, and The University of Queensland.  Personally I like the last one the best, but tastes differ).

What’s going on, to be brief and oversimplify, is that coral have a temperature range, and the Coral Sea, or at least parts of it, are exceeding that range with this year’s El Niño.  By itself it’s a tragedy, and it’s one that’s going to leave a mark that’s bigger than you might think.

Here’s why.

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Yet Another Brief Update
April 8, 2016, 4:52 pm
Filed under: climate change | Tags:

Just a couple of items.  I’m busy with a small consulting gig and with the latest excremental explosion from the Board of Forestry (google California Board of Forestry Vegetation Treatment Program.  Or on second thought, don’t), so I’m not thinking deep thoughts about the future at the moment.  Here are a couple of shallow thoughts as an amuse tête. Continue reading

Climate change and mental health
March 29, 2016, 1:22 am
Filed under: climate change, Hot Earth Dreams, meditation, PTSD | Tags: , ,

This is small entry, but as many people reading this know, working on climate change has mental health effects.  There are articles on the web with such heartwarming titles as:

When the End of the World is Your Day Job

Climate depression is for real. Just ask a scientist

Pre-Traumatic Stress Syndrome: Scientists Speak Out

One college teacher contacted me, because he wanted to use Hot Earth Dreams as a text in his class.  One of the things he asked was what book should be paired with HED to offer a complementary view.  Unfortunately, I probably pissed him off, because my answer was a book on mindfulness. Anyway, after I suggested that, I never heard from him again.  But it was an honest suggestion.

Here’s the thing: I’ve suffered too.  My chiropractor got to know me very well as I wrote HED, and after I released it, I started suffering from what I’m now sure were symptoms of anxiety, although they felt like fairly scary diseases at the time.  What has worked for me in dealing with this is mindfulness meditation.  You don’t have to become a Buddhist to learn it, but it’s worth remembering that the fundamental Buddhist truth is that life is unsatisfactory, but that it’s possible to escape it through embracing the suck rather than trying (inevitably unsuccessfully) to avoid it.

It’s not just about anxiety and depression either.  There’s also guilt, because I’m part of the problem and I don’t feel like I’m doing nearly enough to solve it.  There’s fury, when I see these self-preening…okay, I won’t go on a three paragraph rant about all the politicians and moguls I see, but I get as stressed out imagining them getting their just and gruesome desserts as I do when dealing with depression.  And there’s frustration, of course, and sadness, and the endless chores of dealing with others’ denialism, nihilism, and constant changing of the subject, because anything’s better than trying to do something that requires suffering.  That’s a whole unholy brew, and that’s just inside my own skull.

Just based on my own limited experience, if you’re dealing with similar crap and don’t want to try self-medication, I’d recommend Bhante Gunaratana’s Mindfulness in Plain English.   It’s short, sweet, and it’s helping me.  There’s no magic here: it’s more about putting in the hours learning how to patiently deal.  The only difference is that, unlike the other things I’ve tried so far, it does seem to help.  I’ve also downloaded an app from the American VA for using mindfulness to deal with conventional PTSD, and that helps as well, mostly because I use it to keep track of how long I meditate each day.

Hopefully this will help some of you.  Let me know if it does, or if something else works as well.  There’s enough suffering out there without people suffering alone with this too.

California in the High Altithermal Part 9: Death Valley Dreams

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been reading articles (such as this one) about how anomalously warm Alaska and other parts of the Arctic were this winter.  Someone even said that if California had warmed half as much as the Arctic did, we’d be in trouble.

Well, we did warm about half as much.  By my calculations, San Diego was 9°F/5°C warmer than average for the month of February.  This turned what is normally our wettest month into a dry month, with tumbleweeds sprouting in February instead of June, and flowers blooming months early.  The heat squelched our El Niño rains, with persistent high pressure forcing the rains north to flood northern California and Oregon.  Since I’m not a climatologist, I can’t say authoritatively that this is the new normal, but given the fossil record of rain forests in Oregon and the models of a hot dry So Cal, I’ll go out on a little bitty limb and say it sure could be.  But I’m not sure whether we know that we’re in trouble yet.

Still, some rain did get through, so my wife and I took a three day weekend to go up to Death Valley and see the tail end of the “superbloom,” and all I got was this lousy blog idea.  Actually, I had fun and got a lot of cool pictures of individual flowers and landscapes as well, but the massive fields of flowers have faded away.

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California in the High Altithermal, Part 8: This time it’s different…

This idea seems to be sprouting like a weed in some odd places, including (reportedly) with a group of professors at UC Davis.  The general idea, as I’m hearing it second and third-hand, is a conglomeration of “this time it’s different,” “weeds are the new natives, you stupid nativists,” and “It’s now the Anthropocene, so the old rules are out the window.”

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It can’t happen here, and
March 6, 2016, 2:43 am
Filed under: climate change, disasters | Tags: , ,

Just a brief note.  This afternoon, I was listening to the radio, and the show Reveal had a program called “Might Ike: A monster storm in the making.”  It’s investigative reporting worth listening to, if you want to get away from California disasters a bit.

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California in the High Altithermal, Part 7: The Mish-Mash and the Rebirth (?) of Civilization

This is an ongoing series.  Here are links for Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

One of the things that’s hard about talking about California’s future is that, on the one hand, I’d love to predict winners and losers, and I suspect others would be happier if I did.  For example, perhaps the Latinos take over.  Or possibly the white ranchers will become the feudal lords of the 24th Century.  Or the permaculturalists will agroforest the north, and the Rainbow Family will become a model for future communities.  Or the resurgent Indian tribes will reassert their ancient hunting and gathering life-styles, aided and abetted by the native plant enthusiasts who help them rewild the hills. Or Guatemalan migrant farm laborers will teach the people of California how to make milpas to take advantage of the increasingly tropical climate, and we’ll all go Mayan or Aztec or Tarahumaran or some such, and grow coffee under the trees instead of pot.  Or the tech tycoons will build their shining arcologies on the hills, beacons of sustainable civilization midst a howling wilderness populated by scattered bands of survivalists.

And I could make a story for each of these. But are any of them stories worth telling because it might be true? Or are they just my biases and preconceptions playing out?

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More (Recreational) Reading
February 17, 2016, 6:29 pm
Filed under: climate change, more books, writing | Tags: ,

Yes, I’m still reading.

Speaking of which, yesterday, one of my readers passed along a book review essay from December 1, 2014: J.R. McNei’s Changing Climates of History.  It’s something you might enjoy, hence the link.

McNeil writes about how historians have started grappling with how historians have finally started grappling again with how climate affects civilizations, after casting environmental determinism to the outer darkness back after WWII.  Assuming McNeil’s right, this essay sheds a bit of light on why environmental determinism got such a bad rap, as well as highlighting some neat-looking books, one of which I actually read and included in Hot Earth Dreams, not knowing (as usual), that it was part of a wave going through academia over the last five years.

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